Word of Mouth

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The Independent Online
Last of the empire

Whenever I hear the word Corona, it conjures up images of a long cigar, or the circle of light around the moon. The Corona Club has nothing to do with either, but echoes the days of the British Empire. This British colonial officials' organisation is now 100 years old, and celebrates its birthday today and tomorrow with an extraordinary conference at Senate House, the University of London's impressive, Raj-like art deco headquarters in Bloomsbury.

Men and women who ran the empire on behalf of Great Britain will assemble there, probably for the last time, as remarkable a bunch as the subjects they'll discuss.

Among many distinguished contributors are: Sam Richardson, once the government's legal adviser in Nigeria, who will speak on its law and government; John Smith, former Governor of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, on "Preparation for Independence: West African experience applied to the Pacific"; Sir John Johnson, former district officer in Kenya on his recollections of colonial administration; and Michael Waters who, more recently, was a political adviser to Hong Kong's Governor, Chris Patten, on the preparations for its abandonment to China.

Many others on a fascinating programme include Professor Kenneth Ingham, former history professor at Makerere and director of studies at Sandhurst Military Academy. The conference, which goes by the red carpeted title "Administering Empire - the British Colonial Service in Retrospect", is a joint feather in the caps of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and the Institute of Historical Research, both part of London University which, along with the Corona Club, is sponsoring this last outpost of a bygone age.

Fee fi fo fum

While 35 students at Leeds University are being threatened with expulsion after the summer vacation if they fail to pay their pounds 1,000 fee levy, 39 British students of French studies at the British Institute in Paris will have their fees cut from October. This has been decided without fuss, without sit-ins, just a lovely prezzie out of the blue.

Let me explain. The British Institute is part of the University of London and it introduced the three-year BA honours course back in 1994 on a full- fee basis. That meant that students had to pay an extra pounds 1,500 a year. But since the course was of exceptional value, with three years in Paris to boot, applications went up year after year.

The course started with just six. By October there will be 39 - and the latest intake doesn't yet know about the surprise pounds 1,500 reduction. Beaucoup d'applaudissements!

Lamplighter Lampl

Peter Lampl is a multi-millionaire obsessed with poverty and easier access to decent education. That is why he has, together with the Sutton Trust he founded two years ago and the Girls' Public Day School Trust, founded 127 years ago, launched the country's first "Open Access" school.

As has been widely reported and even more widely welcomed, the school picked to pilot Lampl's project, is the Belvedere School for Girls, an impressive independent on the fringe of Toxteth, a downtrodden part of Liverpool. It's the first decent idea I have heard for the millennium and the school will admit the first batch of fee-free or fee-assisted 11-year-old girls in September 2000. They will have to sit tests in maths and English as well as going through an interview, likely to verge on "positive discrimination" (how else would you pick the poor from the rich?). The Sutton Trust has also funded summer schools at Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol and Nottingham universities to provide free course-tasters for youngsters who might otherwise never have dreamt of entering higher education.

The reason for Lampl's determination to light up the country's education system (for the uninitiated, Lampl means "little lamp") is simple. He spent 15 of his 50 years abroad and noticed, whenever he returned, that education had slipped deeper and deeper into the dumps. "Britain's brightest children are getting a raw deal. Grammar schools used to be open to everyone. Now such an education can be had only by those with money," he says with passion.

Happy returns

I hear that two chaps are returning to their original folds. Eric Anderson, rector of Lincoln College, Oxford, and among the best former headmasters of Eton College, is to return to Eton next year - as its provost, a sort of chairman of governors, only vastly more powerful. The other is Martin Horrox, head of development at The King's School, Ely, and one of the best former directors of external affairs of University College London. He moves back to higher education, and another UCL - the University of Central Lancashire - as its "director of advancement", a ghastly Americanism which is meant to encapsulate everything - marketing, recruitment, fundraising and PR. Happy returns to both.

Stratford on ice

It was like something out of Monty Python. There was this gigantic fridge trundling its way through the East End until it came to a grinding halt in the middle of Cedar Road, Stratford - atte Bowe, not Avon. A huge crane then winched it into position and it's still there today. You'll never guess what it's doing. It is in fact freezing the road beneath it. The kind of weather we've been having throughout most of May, you'd think this wasn't necessary. Still, the road is now measuring -20C.

It is all part of a piece of research by Thames Water to test the combined effect of severe cold and heavy traffic on pipes beneath the Tarmac surface. And Cedar Road? It's part of the University of East London's Stratford campus. I believe some enterprising students have chilled their drinks there. I only wish Thames Water would do a little testing in my street, which is cracking up without the help of frost. And it's no good looking for help to lazy, good-for-nothing Southwark council.

And finally...

There's one thing at which Oxford beats Cambridge - and that's its name. Oxford is able to boast 30 known namesakes throughout the world, compared with only 25 echoes of Cambridge. The latest World Gazetteer (published by Columbia University Press) has uncovered villages and towns in the US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, all called Oxford.

One of them happens to be the University of Mississippi, which is located at Oxford. And incidentally, after Cambridge in the numbers game comes my home town, Manchester, which has 23 towns to its name, and there are 19 Bristols. London has remained remarkably coy, with just nine others dotted about the world. And we all know of Paris, Texas...